People v. Michael Edwards
Issue before the Court:
Whether the issue presented to the grand jury was legally sufficient to demonstrate the defendant acted with depraved indifference to human life under Penal Law 120.10(3), when an intoxicated young driver being pursued by police swerved across lanes of traffic into a parking lot and, while pressing on his brakes, crashed into a concrete divider. The Supreme Court had said no and dismissed the depraved indifference assault counts here, but the Appellate Division reversed in a split decision.
In a one-page SSM decision, the Court affirmed. Viewing the evidence in the light most favorable to the People, it held that a grand jury could find the evidence sufficient to find the defendant “recklessly engaged in conduct that created a grave risk of death...with an utter disregard for whether any harm came to them.” The Court held the fact that innocent inferences could also be drawn from the evidence is irrelevant to the sufficiency inquiry so long as the GJ could have rationally drawn the guilty inference.
The interesting part of this decision lies in the lone dissent by Judge Wilson, who believes this case sets a dangerous precedent in the area of depraved indifference law. Wilson stressed that in People v. Heidgen, 22 NY3d 259, 267 (2013), the Court cautioned that it should be “few and far between” where depraved indifference can lie in the case of an intoxicated driver; in that case, a driver had “played chicken” with oncoming cars. A year later, in People v. Maldonado, 24 NY3d 48,53 (2014), the evidence of depraved indifference was insufficient where the defendant sought to mitigate the consequences of his reckless driving by trying to avoid other cars. There, the Court rejected the argument that a reckless driver who flees police at high speed is necessarily indifferent to human life. Id. at 57-58.
So does this case throw the “rarity” of depraved drunk drivers out the window? To Judge Wilson, the fact that the data revealed that this young driver had been pressing his foot to the brakes for the last five seconds before the car crashed proved he was not indifferent to life here. Judge Wilson believes the facts justified second-degree assault, vehicular assault and aggravated vehicular assault (the latter a remedy specifically intended by the Legislature) but not depraved indifference assault. Query whether this case signals a slippery slope by this conservative-leaning Court of Appeals in this and perhaps other areas of depraved indifference law.